Denise Kiernan is coming to Charleston to talk about nuclear bombs.
Not the scientists who designed them or the politicians who controlled them, but the 75,000 people working at a secret site in eastern Tennessee to enrich uranium in the 1940s.
These workers, many from humble backgrounds, are the subjects and primary sources of Kiernan’s “The Girls of Atomic City: The Untold Story of the Women Who Helped Win World War II.” Kiernan is slated to discuss her work on the 2013 book at the West Virginia Humanities Council’s annual McCreight Lecture, part of the West Virginia Book Festival, on Friday evening.
“I think there are many instances in history where there’s an opportunity to view events from perspectives that have not been formerly explored,” Kiernan said this week. “This was certainly one of those opportunities. Is that opportunity always female? No, but often it is.”
The book chronicles a secret effort to process uranium for the world’s first atomic weapons, and the crucial and lesser-known role women had at the site.
In a people’s history of the time and place, Kiernan drew firsthand accounts from those fueling the war effort through interviews and archival material.
“Some of these women I interviewed grew up in houses that didn’t have plumbing, then they ended up working on the most top secret project of the 20th century,” she said.
Nations’ rights to nuclear armament have underpinned U.S. foreign relations for decades, but for the men and women in what is now Oak Ridge, Tennessee, no one knew exactly what they were working on.
People knew something was up, Kiernan said. Thousands of people and massive sites can’t be hidden. However, most workers had no sense of the scope and raw power of the project at hand.
“That’s what we signed on for,” Kiernan said. “They signed on for the secrecy.”
All this isn’t to say the Tennessee site was a paragon of egalitarian thought. As a Boston Globe book review notes, black workers were housed in different areas than white workers. Women were not considered the “heads of household” and were ineligible for a single-family house.
Kiernan also notes the presence of sexual harassment at the workplace. She said she interviewed many victims, and even spoke to one deceased victim’s husband, who granted an interview on the condition he get to share his late wife’s story of harassment at the site.
“I interviewed many women who were sexually harassed on that project in the ’40s,” she said. “They would have never called it that, but because there wasn’t this kind of, almost more than awareness, this commitment to talking about it — sadly, there probably was awareness but not enough people were willing to come forward and say this is not cool.”
Kiernan’s lecture is scheduled for 7 p.m. Friday at the Charleston Coliseum and Convention Center. She will be available to sign books after the event.